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The Elusive Search for “Modern” Islam

Are Western attempts to understand Islam heading the wrong way?

April 26, 2002

Are Western attempts to understand Islam heading the wrong way?

I remember my first trip to Pakistan ten years ago. My wife had grown up in that country. And now, a year into our marriage, it was time for me to be presented to the family. Although my wife is Christian — her mother is German — all her relatives in Pakistan are Muslims.

Shortly before our trip, my in-laws gave me a quick rundown on the dos and don’ts in Muslim society — and then I was plunged headlong into my adventure.

A sea of uncles, aunts and cousins picked us up at the airport. I made sure that I would shake hands with men — but just nod politely to women. In the end, it did not matter.

Most of my wife’s relatives are what we call “modern Muslims.” They belong to the affluent parts of Pakistani society. Many of them have traveled — or even lived — abroad. And in any case, they were just so happy to see my wife again that soon we were all hugging each other.

As we were handed from relative to relative over the course of our visit, the conversation sooner or later turned to politics. What frustrated many Pakistanis I spoke with was the Western conception of “modern Muslims.” To them, it included only those that shared Western values.

Oddly enough, a significant prerequisite for being a “modern” Muslim in the case of men was a willingness to drink alcohol and, for women, it is still to wear short skirts. Those who did not pass this “test” would be labeled fundamentalist. My wife’s relatives particularly deplored the underlying idea that non-modern Muslims, by definition, were somewhat behind the curve politically, socially and historically.

The crux of the matter is that “modern Islam” — at least the way that the West perceives it — does not really exist. It basically implies espousing a form of Islam without the parts that makes the West feel uncomfortable — the things that are hard to understand and that do not fit into either of the known cultural categories.

The West would like to see a sort of “lite” version of a culture that is distinctly different — not better or worse — from what they know.

But modern Islam as such will not embrace Western values. In the end, it all boils down to what Jordan’s King Abdullah said in a BBC interview: “There is no such thing as moderate Islam and extremist Islam. There is Islam — and there are extremists.”

One should go one step further and say that those who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were extremists — who happened to be Muslims.

Consequently, it does not follow automatically that Muslims who condemned the attacks are on America’s side. After all, it was Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami who was among those to call the attackers “lunatics.”

Yet, according to George W. Bush’s view, Khatami is one of the leaders of an evil axis. What this demonstrates is that mere condemnation of the attacks is no sign of support for the war in Afghanistan, possible attacks on Iraq — or a world dominated by the United States. Neither do those people throughout the world who oppose U.S. domination condone the terrorist attacks. In short, the world is not simply black or white.

What Americans in particular should ask themselves is why so many in the world are critical of the way in which this country, its business leaders, military officials and politicians conduct themselves in the international arena. They should also consider criticism of the United States for non-involvement, of which there are enough examples such as the Kyoto Treaty.

This might come as a rude awakening, but around the world there are some real grievances held against the United States. That some misguided madmen were able to take advantage of that in their attacks is a tragedy. It is not a result of the fact that there are too few “modern Muslims.”

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